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A Very Different Kind of GMO is Headed to Supermarket Shelves

Little is known about the environmental and public health impacts of crops using a new technology called RNAi

Soon, maybe within a year, Americans could be eating two new varieties of apple that won’t turn brown after slicing. To make these new transgenic apples, Okanagan Specialty Fruits, Inc., a Canadian company, turned to an advanced biotechnology called RNA interference (RNAi). Okanagan insists its modified Granny Smith and Golden Delicious varieties— called Arctic Golden and Arctic Granny — are safe to eat. “By the time Arctic apples reach your market, they will be one of the most researched and tested foods on the planet,” the company says on its website. Despite this assurance, a number of disturbing questions remain about how RNAi technology might affect human health.

supermarket vegetable shelvesPhoto by Liz WestRNAi isn’t really a new technique, tt had been used by the food and biotech industry to alter certain fruits and vegetables as far back as the 1990s.

US Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration have already cleared the fruits for sale in the US, much to the disappointment of many food and environmental activists as well as scientists who are concerned about the unintended consequences of the technology used to create these apples. The  Environmental Protection Agency is currently reviewing concerns about RNAi technology raised by several research papers. But the agency’s authority to regulate transgenic crops is limited (See inset). Meanwhile, several other RNAi-altered fruits and vegetables, including non-bruising potatoes, called Innate Potato, and a new kind of pest-resistant corn, are on their way to supermarket shelves.

These new transgenic crops will be much different from most genetically modified foods currently in the market. Traditional GMOs have been altered through gene splicing — a technique that usually adds a new genetic sequence to the plant’s DNA. But these RNAi-altered crops will not be sporting any new genes. Instead, they have been created by shutting down or “suppressing” certain preexisting genes in the vegetables and fruits.

Let’s back up and look at the basic science a bit. RNA and DNA are part of the genetic coding in the cells of every plant and animal. The DNA contains the genes, while the RNA transcribes the genes into messages that dictate proteins, which in turn determine specific traits in a plant or animal. RNAi technology, which is part of a suite of “gene silencing” …more

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Invasive Species Aren’t the Actual Problem, They’re Merely a Symptom

Climate change, habitat destruction, and changes in land use and management contribute to their proliferation

From California to South Africa, New York to New Zealand, invasive species seem to be everywhere, their populations expanding and threatening ecological integrity around the world. A 1998 Princeton University study found that invasive species are the second greatest threat to global biological diversity. In 2011, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the world’s oldest and largest global environmental organization, warned that invasive species wreak havoc on economies and ecosystems. Organizations such as the National Wildlife Federation and the National Audubon Society consider invasive species to be serious impediments to healthy wildlife habitat and the survival of endangered species. And government agencies, including the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, blame invasive species for losses and permanent damage to the health of natural plant communities.

purple loosestrifePhoto by Jack McLane/FlickrPurple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), an invasive perennial plant is spreading rapidly in North American wetlands, shorelines, and roadside ditches. The choices we make on a daily basis—the ways we procure food, shelter, water, medicine, and transportation—are the major drivers of contemporary changes in ecosystem structure and function.

Species invasions are also costly. According to The Nature Conservancy, worldwide spending on invasive species totals $1.4 trillion every year, equal to 5 percent of the global economy. The United States alone spends $137 billion annually to contend with them. The National Invasive Species Council holds invasive species accountable for “unemployment, damaged goods and equipment, power failures, environmental degradation, increased rates and severity of natural disasters, disease epidemics, and even lost lives.”

Given the apparent threats posed by invasive species, it makes sense that their eradication has become a central organizing principle of the practice of restoration. After all, if they are perceived as degrading ecosystems, then the practice of restoration as assisting in the repair of degraded ecosystems should focus on their elimination. I know that people who work in restoration care deeply about the loss of habitats, loss of ecological function, and declining biodiversity that are readily apparent in seemingly every ecosystem on Earth. Invasive species in many cases are part of this trend, and while I agree that invasive species are less ideal than the diverse and robust native flora and fauna they appear to dominate and replace, invasive species themselves aren’t the actual problem; they are merely a symptom. I remove …more

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From Confinement to Contentment

Increasingly, animal shelters across the US are forgoing cages

When Clifford arrived to Kindred Spirits Animal Sanctuary a year and a half ago from a Santa Fe, New Mexico shelter, his fur was coarse and dry and his joints stiff with fear. Now, the blind, old cattle dog mix wanders comfortably across the four-acre hospice for senior animals, his coat soft and clean.

"He can come and go as he likes, as opposed to if you set him off in a little cage. He'd probably be barking, anxious," says sanctuary founder Ulla Pedersen, as she slips the wagging dog a liver treat, "then you get into depression."

a little pup with her rescuerPhoto courtesy of Hope For PawsMost animal rescue experts agree that a cage-free environment helps the animals truly flourish.

While Pedersen wants to make sure she's not insulting shelters that rely on confinement to house so many rescues, she believes a cage-free environment helps the animals truly flourish. The 20 or so senior dogs at Kindred Spirits form a tight-knit community that will stay together through the end. "While they are getting older, they're healing," says Pedersen. "They're healing in their spirit."

Kindred Spirits is one of the many cage-free shelters and sanctuaries that have popped up across the country in the past 30 years. From the rural Southwest to the urban East Coast, more people are insisting that rescued animals need more space and socialization than living in a cage can provide.

Pedersen started her nonprofit hospice in 2002 after volunteering at Best Friends Animal Society, now one of the largest and oldest cage-free sanctuaries in the country. Founded in 1984, the Utah refuge made her reconsider what enrichment should mean for captive animals.

Sitting through most of the day is unnatural for most animals; they need movement. The situation is particularly bad for old animals, whom Pedersen saw get disproportionately abandoned and eventually put down at shelters when they were not adopted. Leaving them in a cell for the rest of their natural lives would be inhumane.

With these thoughts in mind, the retired nurse turned her property on the outskirts of Santa Fe into a sanctuary for senior dogs, horses, and poultry. While they all came there to die, they would at least get to spend the weeks, months, or years they had …more

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Colorado Mine Waste Spill Highlights Urgent Need for Mining Law Reform

It’s time to shift focus from the EPA’s mistake to the problems posed by half a million abandoned hardrock mines in the US

Last Wednesday, the US experienced one of its worst mining-related disasters in decades, and it’s received a lot of attention both here in Colorado and nationally. There’s been no shortage of name calling and blaming, but few seem to be speaking of the bigger picture: How can we learn from this and write policies and regulations that stop this from happening again? 

Gold King MinePhoto by courtesy of the EPAThe mouth of the Gold King Mine and the channeled runoff on the mine dump (right).

The Gold King underground mine near Silverton — about 40 river miles north of Durango on a tributary of the Animas River — was slated to be plugged so that acid mine drainage would stop spilling into the river system. When crews began clearing debris and a temporary blockade to finish the work, they underestimated how much water had collected behind the inactive mine, and three million gallons of acidic, heavy metal-laden water came pouring out at once, turning the clear waters of the Animas deep orange for roughly 60 miles. The river was closed to all recreation while scientists rushed off to sample waters that had increased two orders of magnitude in acidity within 48 hours. Municipal water suppliers, farmers, and ranchers shut off taps and valves to brace for the worst.

Many have suggested the spill would have happened anyway at some point because nearby plugs at other mines caused the water table to rise, thereby increasing water pressure behind the Gold King mine (which was mined from the 1880s to the 1920s and then periodically after that).  But even if that wasn’t the case, the mine had for years been leaching hundreds of gallons of acidic waste per minute from the shaft, which ties into a complex hydrologic system linking many mines together.  

This spill is tragic. It has put drinking water and wildlife at risk, and polluted a river that I know well, one right in my backyard. But the focus should be less on the crew that accidentally triggered the release, and more on the broader story of entire regions throughout the country, facing immense cleanup challenges from mines of the past.

As Dan Olson, executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance said: “While we need to address the immediate impacts …more

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Will Oregon Be the State to Solve the “Wicked Wolf Problem?”

An open process among diverse stakeholders has reduced tensions surrounding the predator

In scientific circles, a “wicked problem” is one that has so much complexity and so many variables — often contradictory and changing over time — that it is considered essentially unsolvable. When gray wolves were reintroduced into the Northern Rockies by the federal government in 1995 and 1996, the social and political reaction, and overreaction, sparked fiery controversy and litigation that has yet to subside. Wolf recovery and management fits squarely into the “wicked problem” category, and prevents the animals from ever being treated as just another wildlife species on the landscape.

Grey wolf in profilePhoto by Aaron TubbsThat wolf recovery and management is driven primarily by regional politics was laid bare when the US Congress, in an unprecedented move, voted to remove wolves from the ESA in most of the northern Rockies.

The dysfunction became apparent in the wolf plans developed by the northern Rocky Mountain states, which were required by the US Fish and Wildlife Service before it would turn over wolf management to state wildlife agencies. Montana and Idaho immediately instituted highly divisive recreational wolf hunting seasons under pressure from the livestock industry, which has traditionally controlled wildlife management in the West. The resumption of hunting was intended to substantially reduce wolf populations. Meanwhile, Wyoming adopted a plan under an agreement with the USFWS that allowed wolves to be killed on sight in 84 percent of the state (although in September 2014 a federal judge ruled the Wyoming plan inadequate to protect wolves and re-listed them under the Endangered Species Act, a ruling which the state is now fighting). That wolf recovery and management is driven primarily by regional politics was laid bare when — after a string of court victories by conservation groups keeping the wolves from being prematurely removed from federal ESA protection — the US Congress, in an unprecedented move, voted to remove wolves from the ESA in most of the northern Rockies. The delisting came in the form of a rider to a defense budget bill, which President Obama signed in April 2011.

When wolves began to disperse from Idaho into the Pacific Northwest, they were entering, to some extent, friendlier territory. An April 1999 survey commissioned by several Oregon conservation groups showed that 70 percent of Oregonians favored the return of wolves. After dispersing Idaho …more

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Rhino Calves Orphaned by Poaching Suffer PTSD

South African conservationists are increasing efforts to rescue and rehabilitate orphans

Rhino calves, orphaned by poaching, are suffering increasingly violent attacks at the hands of poachers and are showing worrying signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), according to wildlife rehabilitation expert Karen Trendler, who leads the national Rhino Response Strategy on behalf of South Africa's Endangered Wildlife Trust.

“We're seeing clear signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in orphaned calves,” says Trendler. “PTSD has been scientifically documented in elephants that have been through a traumatic poaching, and we're now seeing manifestations of trauma here too.”

a white rhino calf and his keeperPhoto by Ann and Steve ToonIthuba, a white rhino calf orphaned by poaching with carer Axel Tarifa

According to Trendler, the level of violence in poaching incidents involving rhinos with calves is escalating: “A few years ago the calves [involved in poaching incidents] were dehydrated, they were hanging around the mother, but they weren't injured. We're now seeing calves being injured, and injured very badly. Also, we're finding in the last six to eight months that poachers are now taking calves with small horns,” she adds.

“The situation changes according to the age of the calf and the circumstances of the poaching,” she explains. “We're finding the youngest calves, up to four months old, will do absolutely anything to get back to the mother when she is poached. So we're getting a lot of very young calves with facial injuries, because the poachers just hit out to get rid of the calf. Older calves will run away, wait a while, then try to get back to the mother. So we're seeing a lot of wounds in chests and forelegs. The oldest calves will keep running, but they've got a bigger horn, so very often the poacher will shoot the mother then take aim at the calf, so a lot of the older calves have spinal injuries or injuries in the hind quarters.”

Last year South Africa lost 1,215 rhinos, according to government figures (in 2007 the figure was a mere 13). Many rhino conservationists believe these official figures significantly understate the real scale of the problem: Many carcasses are not found, and others have deteriorated too much to be positively identified as poaching victims. Furthermore, a significant proportion of South Africa's rhinos are in privately owned reserves, and in some cases their owners …more

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Inside the Complicated World of Online Wildlife Trafficking

You’ve heard of Cecil’s dentist killer, but for tens of thousands of other exotic animals, internet marketplaces like eBay and Craigslist are the biggest threat

If you live in the continental US, have $4,850 and an Internet connection, this large, full-body, mounted African lion, with a shaggy red mane, can be yours.

“This is a fantastic buy for someone who wants a good Lion,” the eBay ad reads. “This mount will make an awesome decoration in any home, office, hunting lodge, lake house, lodge homes, cabin, bar, etc.”

Cecil the lionPhoto by Vince O'Sullivan US authorities have launched an investigation into the illicit killing of Cecil the lion by an American dentist. But illegal wildlife products are all too easily trafficked within the country.

The listing makes no mention of how the animal was procured, nor whether it was legally imported. So perhaps this stuffed, reclining lion for $870 is better suited to the discerning trophy-buyer. Its seller, African Game Industries, assures you that this lion was imported with all of the necessary permits and was inspected by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). It does not offer to produce the paperwork.

On Thursday, in the wake of public outcry over the illegal killing of Zimbabwe’s most recognizable lion, Cecil, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution to act on illegal hunting.

A frustrating fight

But controlling wildlife trafficking is increasingly difficult for law enforcement, in no small part due to online marketplaces such as eBay and Craigslist. Although many popular digital trading posts have adopted regulations to attempt to curtail illegal sales of plants and animals, enforcement can be a nightmare.

The Office of the US Trade Representative estimates that wildlife trafficking and related environmental crimes are worth anywhere between $70bn and $213bn annually.

The Obama administration’s attempt to fight trafficking has been frustratingly slow, as far as animal welfare groups such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) are concerned.

Last year, pointing to the catastrophic uptick in the slaughter of African elephants and the US’s position as the world’s second largest ivory market, FWS said it would ban the commercial trade of African elephant ivory. It wasn’t until last weekend, however, while visiting Kenya, which Obama formally proposed the new restrictions, which are now subject to …more

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